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What is Appreciative Inquiry?

Appreciative Inquiry Process
Appreciative Inquiry Process
Graphic design by Penny M. Stein

When I first heard some companies use Appreciative Inquiry in their strategic planning process, I thought, "What is Appreciative Inquiry?"

As a person who is positive thinking oriented, I found Appreciative Inquiry (AI) a fascinating strategy. It resonates with me that AI perceives change as a holistic endeavor, in that it ensures all stakeholders or representative stakeholders participate in the change-making process. I have always felt change had a domino effect; it not only “changed” a particular concern, but it “changed” those associated with that concern.

Before gaining a deeper understanding of AI, I thought positive thinking and appreciative inquiry were synonymous terms; however, authors Magruder and Mohr in their 2001 book, Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the Speed of Imagination, shared with the reader two factors separating the philosophies.

First, AI has its conceptual roots in the philosophy of social constructionism, which essentially states reality is constructed during the social interactions of people, rather than in the mind of an individual. Secondly, Al is about inquiry, asking questions. It engages people in building the kinds of organizations that they want to live in. It is a highly relational approach to systemic and structural change in human systems that, although not incongruent with positive thinking, is totally different from it (p.195). Kindle Edition.

Although Positive Thinking and Appreciative Inquiry, as methodologies, birth reality through changing a person’s mindset, it is reassuring to know AI is more than a methodology, it is reframing your thought process paradigm and redrawing your future state with words that support your vision not words that speak to the lack of your vision. Therefore, actualizing a set of rules for a given task is not the goal of AI; rather, it is more about propagating a positive thought throughout an organization or system by looking at affirming and life-giving stories of any given situation.

Appreciative Inquiry uses storytelling as a way to help people bring the best of the past into their current reality and project it into their imagined future (Stratton-Berkessel, 2010). Kindle Edition. Storytelling is at the core of AI; it is through life-giving stories that people realize change. One of several theories behind telling affirming stories is more often than not people tend to move toward the positive, heliotropic tendency (Magruder Watkins & Mohr, 2001).

Think of a plant or flower, it always turns toward the sun for life-giving energy. That is how AI in its purest form works. Sharing life-giving stories about the success, beauty, or power of a generally bad situation, turns our collective energy towards those life-giving instances and becomes scaffolding from which we construct a solid foundation to support the movement.

Another theory underpinning affirming AI and storytelling is Social Constructionism. Authors Magruder Watkins and Mohr in their 2001 book, Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination, define Social Constructionism as creating our world by the conversations we have with one another (p. 4).

Appreciative Inquiry is not exclusively concerned with correcting a specific SiTNA (Situation That Needs Attention or problem); it is concerned with how a particular SiTNA requiring a decision affects the whole on a macro level, as opposed to traditional problem-solving approaches of isolating a problem and soliciting solutions to fix it on a micro level. This major difference emboldens AI’s entrance into the strategic planning process, while minimizing participants thinking the philosophy is “Pollyannaish.”

©2012 Penny M. Stein
Readers and media may contact Ms. Stein via e-mail.

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Cited Sources: Magruder Watkins, J., & Mohr, B. D. (2001). Appreciative Inquiry: Change at the speed of imagination. San Francisco, CA, USA: Jossey-Bass/Pfieffer. Stratton-Berkessel, R. (2010). Appreciative Inquiry for Collaborative Solutions 21 Strength-Based Workshops. San Francisco, CA, USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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